Tag Archives: Gematria

Origins and Mysteries of Shabbat Candles

1723 Illustration of Shabbat Candle-Lighting

This week’s parasha, Tetzave, begins with the command to take “pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.” (Exodus 27:20) This refers to lighting the “eternal flame”, ner tamid, of the Temple Menorah. Since the destruction of the Temple, we are no longer able to fulfil this mitzvah exactly. However, the Sages say we can still fulfil this mitzvah through the lighting of Shabbat candles. The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) presents some mathematical proof for this as well: the gematria of ner tamid (נר תמיד) is 704, equal to “on the Sabbath” (בשבת), while the gematria of tetzave (תצוה) is 501, equal to “[God] commanded the women” (נשים צוה). In other words, God commanded women to light Shabbat candles as a way to keep the Temple’s eternal flame going.

This beautiful teaching actually helps us pinpoint the origins of lighting Shabbat candles, since the mitzvah is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Torah. Where exactly did it come from, why was it instituted, and why is it women specifically that are instructed to light these candles? Continue reading

The Economics of Jewish History

In addition to the weekly parasha and Rosh Chodesh reading, this week we also read an extra portion called Parashat Shekalim. In the weeks leading up to Purim and Pesach, there are a number of additional readings to commemorate the key events surrounding those holidays. One of these readings is Shekalim, literally “shekels”, where we recount how the Israelites had each donated a half-shekel in order to conduct a census. The Torah forbids counting souls for several reasons, including the simple fact that people shouldn’t be treated like numbers. So, each adult Israelite male gave a half-shekel (a “substitute for the soul” as the Torah says), the result being the collection of some 300,000 shekels of silver.

Silver half-shekel from the Second Temple era

In the Purim story, we read how Haman promised to pay the king 10,000 kikar of silver to finance the extermination of the Jewish people. One kikar is equivalent to 3000 shekels, meaning Haman amassed 30 million shekels for his final solution. This is an astronomical amount of money, especially back in those days. Where did Haman get it? Rav Ovadia Yosef explained: The Persian and Babylonian businessmen at the time were losing income because the Jewish exiles had come and set up their own superior businesses. The Persians and Babylonians couldn’t compete with the Jews. So, Haman told the businessmen that he can get rid of the Jews for them, and all he needed was a little financial support. They all gladly pitched in for his campaign. This is why the Megillah has Haman saying “I will pay ten thousand kikar of silver al yadei osei hamelakhah [by the hand of those who do business].” (Esther 3:9)

Without those funds, there would be no Purim story! This is one small example of how the shekel—money—drives historical events. We find that, beneath the surface, most of history is a result of economics and business. While so much of Judaism is built upon commemorating the distant past, we seldom think about the financial aspects of those ancient events. Of course, the root reasons for those events are entirely spiritual, yet the way they are brought to actualization is financial. This is hinted to by the Torah’s language itself, where the numerical value of shekel (שקל) is 430, equal to nefesh (נפש), “soul”. It is further alluded to by the Talmud where money is referred to as zuz, literally “move”. Money is the prime “mover” of history. What follows, therefore, is a look at some of the key events of Jewish history—from an economical perspective. Continue reading

Secrets of God’s Ineffable Name

In this week’s parasha, Shemot, God first reveals Himself to Moses. He introduces Himself thus: “I am the God of your forefathers; the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3:6) Later on in the conversation, Moses asks God how he should tell the Children of Israel about God, and what name should he use in referring to God? God replies that He is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I will be what I will be”. The simple meaning here is that God is trying to convey that He is not some idol or pagan deity. He has no shape or form; he has no location. He is everywhere and imbues everything. He is everything. He will be whatever He needs to be; wherever, whenever. Only after that introduction, God says:

Thus shall you say to the children of Israel: YHWH, the God of your fathers; the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever, and this is My memorial unto all generations. (Exodus 3:15)

God reveals His eternal name: YHWH (יהוה), a term so holy and powerful it is not uttered. It is referred to as God’s “Ineffable” Name, or just the Tetragrammaton (literally the “four-letter” name), and by Jews as Hashem (“The Name”), or Adonai (“My Lord”) in prayers or Torah readings. Some Jews refer to it by rearranging the letters and saying Havaya. (Some non-Jews have transliterated it into English as “Jehovah”.) Whatever the appellation, this name of God carries infinite depths of meaning. Several of these will be explored below. Continue reading